Improving food security with high-tech farming methods and education

Canada’s Space and Advance Life Support Agriculture program develops systems that can grow food reliably and indefinitely on the moon or on Mars but experts say the technology can also be helpful for bringing food security to Canada’s North.    

Canada’s Space and Advance Life Support Agriculture program develops systems that can grow food reliably and indefinitely on the moon or on Mars but experts say the technology can also be helpful for bringing food security to Canada’s North.    

Canada is a world leader in advanced life support systems – developing the technologies, management practices, sensor systems and automated controls necessary for growing food for space explorers. While the systems that are Canada’s contribution to the international space program are designed to function on the moon and on Mars, they may also find applications closer to home, says Mike Dixon. 

The director of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility at the University of Guelph’s school of environmental sciences explains that leaving Earth for longer periods isn’t feasible without SALSA (Space and Advance Life Support Agriculture), which develops “all the widgets and gadgets you need to successfully grow food reliably and indefinitely for life support.”

Canada comes by its leadership role quite naturally, says Dixon, who calls the moon “the next worst place to grow food right after a snow bank in Yellowknife.” After over two decades of pointing out that the technology for sophisticated controlled environment food production can be applied in the extreme environments of Northern Canada, Dixon is happy to report that his efforts are going to bear fruit, and not just in the metaphorical sense.

AgNorth brings space farming science to Canada’s North

Many communities in Canada’s North depend on imported food. In the winter months, fresh produce travels an average of 10 days to reach the Northwest Territories, resulting in high costs and loss of quality, and community members advocate for implementing measures that lead to better food access.

Many communities in Canada’s North depend on imported food. In the winter months, fresh produce travels an average of 10 days to reach the Northwest Territories, resulting in high costs and loss of quality, and community members advocate for implementing measures that lead to better food access.

A feasibility study called AgNorth – examining scalable, modular farm systems based on the advanced life support systems developed by Dixon’s team – was conducted in 2012-13 in partnership with the Aurora Research Institute and space hardware company COM DEV International. The next step for the project envisions five units to be part of the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) Living Classroom in Hay River.

“Our vision is to embrace everything from simple measures to appropriate technology, and bring them together in one space to work out what it takes to bring food security back to the North,” says NFTI president Jackoline Milne, adding that “right now, practically all the food in the Canadian North is imported.”

In the winter months, fresh produce consumed in the Northwest Territories (NWT) comes from as far south as Colombia. Long travel times – an average of 10 days – result in high costs and loss of quality. Food access is an important consideration, especially for remote communities, says Neil Currie, chair of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s National Food Strategy and general manager of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

Access to food in Canada’s North: A fundamental human right

“Access to food is a fundamental human right and has been identified as one of the principles of a national food strategy, along with health and sustainability,” says Currie, adding that the term sustainability applies not only to food systems and the environment, but also takes economic viability into account.

Gaps in access to nutritious and affordable food do not only affect people in the NWT – they are “a nationwide” problem, according to Currie. “There are a number of remote communities that are struggling across the country,” he says, adding that the national food strategy includes recommendations for looking at private/public sector partnerships for facilitating access in areas experiencing a deficit. 

Food sustainability in NWT requires innovation

Milne believes that food sustainability in the NWT will require a multitude of solutions and tools. “We need a broad spectrum of simple food systems and, where appropriate, advanced greenhouses,” she explains. As much as there is no single food type enough to nourish human beings, Milne believes that food systems in Canada’s North need to be diverse in order to become resilient, adaptable and dependable.

The Hay River farm will be designed to feed 200 people year-round, Milne explains, and the model will yield information on what capacity is needed for gardens, greenhouses, food storage and animal systems. Once the parameters are determined, the system can be applied to Canada’s “fly-in communities” with equivalent population numbers.

“They represent the most vulnerable people, and we’re going to figure out what it takes to bring security to that population,” says Milne. The Hay River Living Classroom is envisioned as a combination of applied research, training and business incubation activities. In addition, the farm will produce food of a retail value of approximately $1-million a year, she adds, making it an attractive business model.

While the contribution of the AgNorth units – which produce food on three levels over a two-square-metre footprint – will be a “very great deal of edible biomasses,” an economically viable application of the technology appears to be still some time away, according to Dixon.

“Our objectives for the next phase are mainly research on the operation and horticultural management as well as training. This is basically a high-density modular farm,” he explains. “You need a farmer to run it and technical support for things like the automated environment control, nutrient control, and sensor management and calibration that people will need training on.”

It’s a task Dixon embraces. “I’m an educator,” he says. “My commitment is not only to build a fancy farming system, but to train the exotic farmers of the Canadian North of the future.”

While AgNorth brings expertise and technology to the table for tackling food security in the North, Milne believes the power of transformation also lies with the people. “Every spring is an opportunity for every single person in the community to plant a garden,” she says. “Even though it might take a while for new habits to take hold, once the change gets started, it can have a cascading effect.” 

Working toward common goals

As the world’s population is expected to reach nine billion people by 2050, according to U.N. estimates, food systems across the globe have to adapt to meet the increasing need. To ensure that Canada’s agriculture and agri-food industries have the conditions they need to prepare for this challenge, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) initiated a nationwide food strategy, says Neil Currie, chair of the National Food Strategy.

“We found that an overall high-level strategy was needed instead of just treating symptoms,” Currie explains. “If we can agree on overarching goals for our food systems, establishing policy can be much more straight-forward because we are working towards the same outcomes.”

Food strategy goals include making sure all Canadians have access to healthy, fresh Canadian products and working towards greater sustainability in the environment as well as fostering economic stability.

Additional objectives are to make Canadian food products the preferred choice in domestic as well as international markets, promote health foods and eating patterns, and ensure the Canadian food chain is driven by its diverse, sustainable, innovative and profitable farm and food supply sectors.

While the National Food Strategy establishes a number of goals, work on mapping out how to get there, including policy, needs to follow, says Currie.